Do western tourists still make pilgrimages to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's retreat? In the early 1980s you could always spot them there in Rishikesh, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. Some came in search of the maharishi to learn more about transcendental meditation. Most of them really made the trip to pay tribute to the Beatles. On any given day you found them trying to reconnect to the current that had passed through their lives in the days before the band broke up. They were the ones you saw crouching in the grass, reaching down to touch the concrete landing pad where the Beatles' helicopter had once lifted the magic boys into the sky.
It seems as if we started mourning the Beatles not long after we met them. Not even seven years elapsed between their first arrival in the U.S., when they managed to seem both snippy-worldly and fresh-out-of-the-cellophane innocent, and the official announcement of their breakup, a squabble as painful for the world at large as it was for them. Ten years after that John Lennon was gone. And now, although it may take a while for it to sink in, when George Harrison died last week, we said goodbye to the Beatles for good. A Beatles reunion with just Paul and Ringo would be not much more than a memorial service.
Harrison, of course, had offered his own guidance on how to think about these things. All Things Must Pass was a song he wrote after the breakup of the Beatles. John had his bitter wit. Ringo Starr had his affability. Paul McCartney had his winking charm. What Harrison possessed was something more unexpected in a rock star: the air of a man in search of mature understandings.
He may have been the youngest Beatle, but from early on he struggled toward the melancholy wisdom of later life. There was gravity even in his love songs. The stately tempos in Something, the plangent guitar in I Need You are not the musical indicators of a lighthearted romantic. So when the Beatles disintegrated in 1970 and the air was full of moist-eyed tributes, it was not surprising that Harrison replied with the resolute detachment he had learned from Eastern religion. "All things must pass," he sang. "All things must pass away."
This is not a lesson we have ever accepted willingly when it comes to the Beatles. If you happen to be over 35 or so, the Beatles are too deeply imprinted in your synapses to let them go. If they live, so do your own youthful energies. If five-year-olds everywhere love Here Comes the Sun, if The Beatles Anthology is a best seller, it's just confirmation of what we already knew: that the Beatles are immortal. Therefore us too.
All the while we know that they are not immortal in the flesh. The Beatles have been like a great clock. Year after year we have looked at them at the aging of those faces, at the mellowing of their lives to see what time it is for all of us. When one of them dies, the hour seems very late. Even so, Harrison's death is not a shot to the heart, as Lennon's was. It was Lennon's murder that truly snuffed out the baby-boomer fantasy of eternal youth. If the presiding imp of the golden 1960s could be snatched away so suddenly, what hope was there for the rest of us? Harrison's death, however premature, feels different. It is more in the ordinary course of things, a reminder that the simple passage of time is all that will be needed to complete the work that Mark David Chapman began, subtracting the Beatles from the world.
All the same, it is much too soon for George Harrison to be gone. All things must pass, he said. O.K., we say back. O.K., we know. We have lived through Sept. 11. We have seen things pass. We listen to his song differently now, cherishing it as a warning against old complacencies and a promise that the darkness of this moment too shall pass. But about some things, we still feel the same way. One of them is this: Long live the Beatles.